23 March 2012

Neurodiversity and the Life of the Mind at Georgetown

Earlier this week, I was contacted by one of the staff writers for the Georgetown Voice, a student-run weekly news magazine here at Georgetown, after one of the staff had read the article Georgetown posted about my advocacy work last week. The Georgetown Voice published an editorial in this week's issue supporting neurodiversity, but due to space constraints, only published brief excerpts from my responses to the questions.

Here are the questions and my complete responses:


Neurodiversity is the philosophy that neurological diversity is a natural and normal part of the human experience, both genotypically and phenotypically. Neurodiverse people include people with developmental disabilities, intellectual or cognitive disabilities, learning disabilities or differences, mental health conditions or mental illness, and mood or behavior disorders. The term is most strongly associated with the "Autism Rights Movement," a broad movement of individuals and organizations that applies the principles of neurodiversity and the disability rights movement to the Autistic community, but is not limited in scope to Autistic people.

1. What is your take on why neurodiversity is important in an academic or university environment?
It is as important to discuss and embrace the neurologically diverse and the issues that affect them as it is to discuss and embrace the racially, religiously, sexually oriented, gender, and nationally diverse and the issues that affect those respective constituencies. Disability studies is a new and emerging field; this academic discipline explores the historical and sociological perspectives of disability, as well as current trends and movements in the d/Disabled communities, public policies that affect us, and controversies among our community. Disability studies is the academic discipline that approaches issues around disability, much like Women's and Gender Studies, LGBTQ Studies, African American or Black Studies, Latino or Hispanic Studies, Jewish Studies, or Islamic Studies are academic disciplines that explore issues affecting those communities. Neurodiversity is important in the academic or university environment because its perspective on issues about disability are profoundly different than a purely medical perspective or a perspective that urges pity and insists on fixing or curing. Neurodiversity is about empowering and uniting the people labeled neurodiverse, and deserves discussion and critical analysis in the university environment.

2. Did you feel welcomed or marginalized within the Georgetown community?
Is it possible to say both at once? For the most part, I have found myself welcomed into communities across campus, student organizations, and my floor -- the Justice and Diversity Living and Learning Community. Faculty and students alike have expressed strong interest in learning more about the issues that affect the Autistic and neurodiverse communities. On the other hand, I do feel marginalized when I meet students who know nothing about neurodiversity or the issues that affect the neurodiverse. I feel marginalized when students ask whether I work with Autism Speaks, an organization that most Autistic adults dislike because it frequently propagates ideas or policies contrary to the interests of Autistic people and fails to include us in positions of leadership. But this is less a failure of the Georgetown community than it is a reflection of the failures of our society and a reminder of the hard work necessary to build a future more welcoming for Autistic people and more understanding of neurodiversity.

3. What can the administration or the student body do to increase awareness about and to cope with neurodiversity?

There is a huge difference between "awareness" and "acceptance" and "critical engagement." Awareness means nothing more than that people know that neurodiversity exists. They may still have many misconceptions, negative stereotypes, internalized ableism, or inaccurate ideas about what it means to be neurodiverse. Acceptance is a step higher on the ladder, and means that people are not merely aware that the neurodiverse exist, but have moved beyond the rhetoric that calls for a cure or a fix for people who are supposedly defective or broken or less than. Acceptance requires that the neurodiverse are fully included and welcomed as members of the community as other minority, underrepresented, or traditionally marginalized groups. Critical engagement takes acceptance one step further -- critical engagement is not merely accepting the neurodiverse as part of the community, but looking critically at the issues that affect the neurodiverse, whether those issues lie with society, rhetoric, or policy, and engaging in discussion about proactive means of addressing those problems to create a more equitable world for the neurodiverse.

The administration can work to encourage academic programming that focuses on issues that affect the neurodiverse, such as speakers or panelists who question the institutional framework of cure or recovery and discuss neurological diversity from a disability rights framework, which draws on the principles of social justice or civil rights. The administration can work with departments and individual professors to incorporate coursework that explores issues of neurodiversity and disability in general, including readings and other material written or produced by people with disabilities or Disabled people. My dream for Georgetown is that one day, we will have a Disability Culture Center that will function identically to the LGBTQ Resource Center, the Women's Center (which focuses on gender issues), or the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (which focuses on racial or ethnic diversity.) Such a center would work in conjunction with other academic or university departments, outside organizations, and student organizations to regularly provide academic and social programming for both members of the Georgetown Community and the public centered around issues of disability rights and disability cultures.

Opening the conversation and ensuring that the neurodiverse are front and center in the conversation is the first step toward acceptance and then to critical engagement. Hosting programming such as the Autistic Empowerment: The Civil Rights Model panel (3/27, 5:30-8pm, McShain Large)1 that explores neurodiversity and disability rights issues at large while engaging established and emerging leaders in the disability and d/Disabled communities is an excellent way for both students and administrators to create more conversation.

4. What is your perspective on what the autistic community brings to campus?

I've only met three other Autistic students here, though statistics tell me that there should be roughly seventy Autistic undergraduates (either diagnosed or not yet diagnosed), give or take a few. My hope is that the Autistic community on campus will become stronger and more cohesive, along the lines of student organizations such as the South Asian Society, Muslim Students Association, GU Pride, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, or Chinese Students Association, so that Autistic students will have opportunities to be more connected around Autistic culture and community, should they so desire. Autistics are as much a part of Georgetown as are our South Asians, Muslims, LGBTQ folks, Orthodox Christians, and Chinese. Like those in the LGBTQ community, many Autistics may still be "in the closet" about being Autistic, and still others may be questioning and not yet diagnosed. But we are here, even if you don't know exactly who we are. We are students and faculty and staff. If engaged more now and into the future, we can become leaders in spearheading discussion about the topics and issues that affect us.


1 The Autistic Empowerment panel is a Georgetown University event and unfortunately is not open to the public.

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